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What it Means to Live on God's Good Earth
By Arda Ringnalda Rooks '78

<< Spark Online

Just below ground level on Calvin's campus there is a department that—appropriately—studies the earth.

Walk down the steps into bowels of North Hall and let your eyes adjust to the light. Look out of office and classroom windows, and you'll see the earth everywhere. Yellow slivers of sunlight filter through the tops of the trees onto a forest floor. It's as if you've stepped back in time, into the heart of a small primordial forest.

Janel Curry
Janel Curry

It's an apt metaphor for what the department of geology, geography and environmental studies does here. The seven professors in this department look back in time to study how the earth has been formed; they study its composition now; and they look forward to see what must be done to better use the earth and its resources. Geography professor and current dean of research and scholarship Janel Curry puts it well: "We study the earth; the earth alone or as the home of humanity." The discipline of geography has two thrusts: physical geography focuses on the study of the earth's surface while human geography studies the interplay of our earth and its human inhabitants. The department's second discipline, geology, examines the composition of our earth, while the third discipline, environmental studies, concentrates on how mankind can best live with the earth in wholeness and healthy relationship.

It's a complex task for a small department, but after spending a day and a half with faculty and students, I am convinced that they are up to it, and that they love the work they do. An exploration of the department's home yields the evidence.
I meander down a hall to see lit display cases containing all kinds of interesting specimens: rocks and fossils, brachiopods, blastoids and bones, all with classifications and names I can't get my tongue around. On one shelf lies a tooth the size of a brick: it's the right upper molar of the "Ada Bible Church Mastodon," says the label (see p. 28). Another wall displays charts on volcanoes and solfataras, magna and lava. I take a long look at the giant relief map of the world that stands taller than I am outstretched and at least four giant steps across.
Then there is the shiny new computer lab, gleaming with new monitors and hard drives, all recently dedicated on October 2, 200l. Here students can create intricate maps and analyze oodles of data. They can make high-impact visuals and answer questions ranging from "Where exactly should the next retail outlet be located?" to "What is the relationship between income and the demographics in a particular area."

Henk Aay - click photo to enlarge image
Henk Aay, department chair

It's not just the physical evidence, it's the attitude of the faculty that impresses me. It impresses the students, too. Seniors Sebastian Naslund and Nathan Bosch speak of the passion their instructors have for their teaching, their research and for creation itself. The department chair, Henk Aay, explains that "geography, like no other discipline, is able to bring the natural and human world together in a dynamic interplay," while Curry says that the question of "what it means to live on God's good earth" undergirds all study done by her colleagues. Aay agrees, explaining that striving to understand the delicate "interplay between the natural world and the human world" is "what animates us."

Sebastian Naslund
Sebastian Naslund

It isn't just the professors who feel passionately about their subject of study; students too exhibit a real love for the earth. Naslund, a geology major from Abbotsford, B.C., says simply, "I love nature." Curry says that at times she wonders if her students "aren't prophetic…if the love they have for the earth isn't a lot like the love students might have for the handicapped, for kids with special needs."

Love for creation is naturally linked to one's love for God. Bosch, a geography major from Grand Rapids, says that his professors are not afraid to vocalize their faith. "Some of the most passionate professors for religion (faith in God) are the geography professors…the awe and amazement (is what) they try to reveal to us every day. They genuinely see God in the natural world." Bosch adds that the connection between faith and reason is a given that many of the professors at Calvin strive to articulate and model.

Nathan Bosch
Nathan Bosch

Bosch feels privileged to have taken courses with professors that have encouraged him to learn in the light of faith. Bosch elaborates: God has given us two obvious ways to learn about him, scriptures and creation. In his studies, he was encouraged to explore "the wonder of both."

Wonder also motivates research done by the department. Though too complex and varied to do justice here, a few examples of questions that the geography, geology and environmental studies professors are asking might help understand the scope of this research. Ralph Stearley, professor of geology, explores such questions as "How do planets move matter around internationally?" and "Why is there such a lack of liquid on other planets?" Johnathan Bascom, who specializes in the area of African studies, asks questions such as "What is the relationship between refugee resettlement and rural development in Africa?" and has published articles and books exploring the answer. Aay, who does "historiographic retrieval," explores the work of Christian thinkers in the field of geography whose work is "significant but undervalued and needs to be brought to light." Davis Young, internally known for his writing, has made significant contributions in the area of the relationship between geology and Christianity.

It's surprising to think that Calvin has not always had a geology, geography and environmental studies department. In l950, seminary student Tymen Hofman and some of his classmates wrote a letter to the board, explaining that Calvin ought to offer courses in geology that could give a Christian perspective on "the ages of rocks and the long history of living organisms preserved as fossils." It took another 17 years before Clarence Menninga was hired. When he arrived in 1967, Menninga began teaching the first courses in geology at Calvin.
Eleven years after Menninga arrived, Young joined him and the geology program expanded to a minor. When James Clark joined the faculty in 1982, the program expanded to a major. Geography was added to the program with the arrival of Henk Aay in 1982; three years after his arrival, a minor was established, and in another three years, students could earn a geography major. Aay was also instrumental in establishing the environmental studies program, a program that Aay says was launched "a bit late" but in response to "a growing awareness of environmental issues."

In a world that is at times chaotic and where people seem not to care about each other or their earth, even professors of geology, geography and environmental studies can grow discouraged. But Curry says that her students "are amazingly optimistic and hopeful. They hold to the vision of healing that their faith in God gives them." Aay agrees, "That's true, you know. It's often the students that keep you going." Without knowing it, the students who take classes in the basement of North Hall give their professors the courage to keep to the task at hand, or as Bascom expresses it, "to plow the small field" they've been given.

Geology, Geography & Environmental Studies Department
Current professors and students; research projects; field trip photos

Mastodon Dig
Slide show of excavation work; analysis of the findings

The History of Geology at Calvin
Lecture by Clarence Menninga

"Restoring Creation with Native Plants"
Listen to David Warners' lecture on real audio.

Ecosystem Preserve

Calvin Environmental Assessment Program
Studies of the environment (campus ponds, soil analysis, recycling, etc.) on Calvin's campus

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